Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (Utopias and Dystopias #10)


Ursula Le Guin is finally beginning to get her due with the library of America’s edition of The Complete Orsinia, Julie Philip’s recent The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin in the New Yorker,  David Mitchell’s paen to the wisdom literature of Earthsea, and Zoe Carpenter’s profile in The Nation.

Le Guin is one of the most philosophically sophisticated writers in the canon and The Dispossessed is unique – to my knowledge – as an evenhanded imagining of what an anarchist society might be. It is also unusual example of a successful novel that has its origins as political philosophical exploration. In her Paris Review Interview the interviewer asks Le Guin about this:

Interviewer: You’ve written that you can’t get underway with a project until you have the characters clear in your mind. But I suspect that some of your books may have begun not with a set of characters but with an idea you wanted to explore.

Le Guin: That is probably truest of The Dispossessed. Although it started as a short story. I had this physicist and he was in a prison camp somewhere. The story just went nowhere, but I knew that character was real. I had this lump of concrete and somewhere inside it was a diamond, but getting into the lump of concrete—it took years. For whatever reason, I started reading pacifist literature, and I was also involved in antiwar protests, Ban the Bomb and all that. I had been a pacifist activist of sorts for a long time, but I realized I didn’t know much about my cause. I’d never read Gandhi, for starters.

So I put myself through a sort of course, reading that literature, and that led me to utopianism. And that led me, through Kropotkin, into anarchism, pacifist anarchism. And at some point it occurred to me that nobody had written an anarchist utopia. We’d had socialist utopias and dystopias and all the rest, but anarchism—hey, that would be fun. So then I read all the anarchist literature I could get, which was quite a lot, if you went to the right little stores in Portland.

In the forward to the prequel “The Day Before the Revolution,” Le Guin writes:

Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with; not the social Darwinist economic “libertarianism” of the far right; but anarchism, as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelly and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism’s principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.

Anarchy comes from the Greek anarchos a means without (an) ruler (archos). In his entry to the extraordinary 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Peter Kropotkin writes:

The name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government—harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.

The Dispossessed tells the story of Shevek, a brilliant physicist raised in the anarchist colony on the moon Anarres. It begins with his journey to the planet Urras that is much like earth during the Cold War. The contrast between the two planets serves to illustrate Anarres anarchism and to quietly comment on the absurdity of many aspects of capitalism. Le Guin is too powerful a novelist and thinker, however, to offer a simple judgment of either society: anarchism has its drawbacks and American capitalism its advantages, leaving genuine questions about the desirability or superiority of either socio-political system.

Annares is a society run according to the principles of the anarchist philosopher Odo based on mutual aid and cooperation with no private property or prisons. Sexual relations are fluid and personal relations are in theory non-possessive. So are the pronouns of their language Pravic: children refer to their mother as “the mother” and people use the definite article to refer to parts of their bodies (“the hand hurts me”) (51).1 Violence is interpersonal, not state inflicted, and rarely lethal. Social norms are maintained through ridicule, disapproval, and – at an extreme – ostracism. Crime is mostly non-existence (though occasionally people are asked to go away on their own). As Shevek tells his colleague from Urras Oiie in a discussion about how people from Anarres deal with crime and dirty jobs:

“Nobody owns anything to rob. If you want things, you take them from the depository. As for violence, well, I don’t know Oiie; would you murder me, ordinarily? And if you felt like it, would a law against it stop you? Coercion is the least efficient means of obtaining order.” (132)

Nonetheless, anarres is an ambiguous utopia. Its anarchism is supported by an unyielding environment in which extreme altruism and cooperation are necessary for survival. Unrelenting socialization (based partly – I suspect – on the kibbutz) is needed to teach people to conform to the anarchist norms. There is little tolerance for deviance – a Shevek discovers when he decides to visit Urras and the other children taunt his daughter, calling him a “traitor” and an “egoizer”.

There is also bureaucracy:

Decentralization had been an essential element in Odo’s plans for the society she did not live to see founded. She had no intention of trying to de-urbanize civilization. Though she suggested that the natural limit to the size of a community lay in its own immediate region for essential food and power, she intended that all communities be connected by communication and transportation networks, so that goods and ideas would get where they were wanted, and the administration of things might work with speed and ease, and no community should be cut off from change and interchange. But the network was not to be run from the top down (84)

Nonetheless, there is centralization and an unofficial cabal that run the bureaucracy:

But, as they said in the analogic mode, you can’t have a nervous system without at least a ganglion, and preferably a brain (85).

In particular, Anarres has disadvantages for iconoclasts and geniuses. Shivak finds himself isolated and thwarted by his supposed mentor Sabul (who publishes some of Shivak’s work in his name on Urras). Shevek’s friend Bedap says:

We have no government, no laws, all right. But as far as I can see, ideas never were controlled by laws and governments, even on Urras. If they had been, how would Odo have worked out hers? How would Odonianism have become a world movement? The archists tried to stampt it out by force, and failed. You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can’t, he prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working! Right? In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. Not from intellectual excellence, he hasn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.” (147)

Of all the political philosophies, I find anarchism the most attractive – I follow James C. Scott in giving Two Cheers for Anarchism. Most of our institutions – families, schools, businesses, clubs – should aspire to freely agreed democratic governance and mutual aid. Coercion has severe limitations in what it can accomplish – it cannot support creativity, human flourishing, love or friendship.

At the same time, every political ideology has its drawbacks. The anarchism of The Dispossessed is attractive, yet flawed, just as any attempt to organize human beings has limitations and trade-offs in which some people benefit less than they would in alternative arrangements.

1Page numbers refer to the 1975 Haper & Row edition.


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